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'It brings history to life': The project giving colour to Michael Collins, Countess Markievicz and other Irish figures

Hundreds of historic Irish photos have been given a new lease of life by NUI Galway professor John Breslin.

Michael Collins, colourised by John Breslin and shared on Old Ireland in Colour
Michael Collins, colourised by John Breslin and shared on Old Ireland in Colour

FOR MORE THAN a century, the green hue of Constance Markievicz’s uniform had been lost to time.

In around 1917, the countess sat beside Theo Fitzgerald and Thomas McDonald, both members of nationalist youth group Fianna Éireann, for a portrait by the photographer AH Poole.

Markievicz, who would have been in prison for her role in the Easter Rising not long beforehand, wore the bottle green outfit for the occasion and was positioned front and centre, with the two men standing behind her.

But when Poole took the photograph, the countess didn’t even face the camera.

Instead, she sat enraptured by her cocker spaniel, Poppett, using both hands to balance the dog on the side of her chair while Fitzgerald and McDonald appeared to take no notice of what was happening in front of them.

The black and white image is now in the ownership of the National Library of Ireland, but was recently ‘rediscovered’ after a colourised version was shared online, complete with the striking colour of Markievicz’s uniform.

The full-colour image was the creation of NUI Galway professor John Breslin, who has done similar work on hundreds of photos of historic Irish photographs for his project Old Ireland in Colour.

Breslin, who began posting colourised images from the late 19th and early 20th centuries online last year,  tells TheJounal.ie that the project began after he ran a picture of his grandmother through software called Deoldify and was impressed with the results.

“I’m not a history buff to be honest,” says Breslin, who runs the project in his spare time through the Insight Centre at NUI Galway.

“I’ve no particular skills in history. The last history I would have seen would have been in the 1980s, when I did my Inter Cert.

“So it was actually kind of a journey of discovery, because I brushed up on the history and I started finding a lot of stuff that I didn’t know about.”

In the six months since, thousands have made a similar journey of discovery after being captivated by what Breslin has shared on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Historical accuracy

To colourise a photo, Breslin searches through archives that allow him to alter and share images under copyright.

Many of the pictures that appear on Old Ireland in Colour are sourced from the National Library of Ireland, the National Folklore Collection, and the US Library of Congress.

However, the process is far from just running each picture through the software once and posting the results online.

“With at least 90 percent of the pictures I do, I have to manually intervene,” he says.

“You run [a photograph] through the programme then have to manually adjust various bits and pieces. You’ll see a lot of pictures where there are maybe ten people, or maybe even 100 people, and Deoldify does a good job in terms of colourising a lot of it.

“But then you have to manually adjust and and fix the things it misses out on.”

Tweet by @Old Ireland in Colour Source: Old Ireland in Colour/Twitter

Breslin often shares updates of photographs he is working on, which show that what he is doing isn’t a straightforward process.

He explains that even when the software colourises a photograph relatively easily, he seeks to make sure what he is producing is historically accurate.

In the Countess Markievicz picture, he says, the software initially coloured her uniform in purple. Breslin then had to adjust it to be bottle green instead. 

“Sometimes, nobody knows what type of jacket somebody is wearing on a particular day unless there’s a record or a painting, or somebody wrote down what happened,” he says.

“When I did Bram Stoker, some records have him as having red hair and some people say he had some other colour hair. So you have to try and do a best guess for what it actually is.”

Everyday scenes

As well as images of famous figures like Markievicz and Michael Collins, Old Ireland in Colour contains an abundance of historical scenes, including the shelling of the Four Courts and a gathering of the Irish Women Workers’ Union at Liberty Hall in 1914.

Other images show occasions that aren’t written about in history books, but capture everyday life in early 20th century Ireland, particularly around Galway and the Aran Islands.

One picture shared recently showed two young girls standing on a roadside in rural Galway, with bob haircuts, identical white pinafores and confused expressions.

If you didn’t know better, you might think the photo was taken in the last few decades. The fact that it was captured in 1903 is a testament to how skilfully Breslin selects and instils life into old images.

Tweet by @Old Ireland in Colour Source: Old Ireland in Colour/Twitter

“There’s a lot of great photographs out there from various libraries and national resources that are ripe for this,” he says.

“The images are often quite striking in black and white but in the modern age, with YouTube, Facebook and Twitter blasting videos and colour photographs at you, it’s sometimes hard to get attention for those great pictures.

“I think colourising them brings them to life, and brings history to life for much of the population who will be largely unaware of some of the great things that happened in our past.”

Tweet by @Old Ireland in Colour Source: Old Ireland in Colour/Twitter

Requests and recognition

But occasionally, some people are already aware of the obscure individuals who appear in the photographs.

Breslin says he is sometimes contacted by those who have identified a long-lost relative whose image he has posted online.

“You’ll see people saying who one person is, that it’s their great grandmother or something. It’s amazing the kind of people who get identified in photographs,” he says.

More often though, people will come to him asking for a picture of their relative to be colourised – a service he’s not capable of offering (instead he directs people to a tutorial he made showing people how to use colourising software, or to a commercial service).

Although the project is online-only for now, Breslin is thinking about ways to bring the photographs into the physical world.

Many have asked him for prints of the images, which has proven tricky because the project is a not-for-profit endeavour.

But he reveals that he’s working with a historian to potentially release a book of photographs, and plans are afoot to display some of the images in a live setting too. 

“I’ve had people coming to me saying ‘could you please do a coffee table book because I have to keep giving my phone to my parents to show them these photographs?’,” he says.

“And all things going well, I’m planning to do an exhibition of a subset of Galway-related pictures that I’ve done later this year.”

That might be a long time away for some. But with no shortage of history to colourise, there should be plenty of material to keep followers satisfied between now and then.

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